An End to Splendid Isolation
To solve society’s stickiest issues, engineering majors need a broad liberal arts education – and vice versa.
Opinion by C. Judson King
Engineering and technology are so central to modern life that they have become inextricably intertwined with social, political, and economic matters. Consider the many issues involved in such global challenges as climate change, water supply and reuse, social uses of information technology, energy supply and usage, modern finance, or genetically modified organisms. Therefore it is increasingly essential that engineers interact with areas of knowledge beyond engineering and science, and understand other ways of thinking. Likewise, all educated people must have a better understanding of engineering approaches and problems.
For universities, this means their engineering students need much more extensive general education and must acquire an ability to understand and work closely with individuals from different backgrounds. Conversely, courses that give general familiarity and comfort with engineering concepts and approaches should be part of general education requirements for all undergraduates. The greatest research opportunities and needs are multidisciplinary, and thus are most productively approached by teams reflecting a variety of disciplines. The time has come to integrate engineering fully with the rest of human knowledge – and the rest of the university.
The barriers to integration are largely attributable to academic engineering itself. Although it is an undergraduate major, engineering in the United States is almost always located in a separate school or college, apart from the College of Arts and Sciences or general undergraduate experience. This structure reflects engineering’s professional heritage. Being separate, engineering usually sets its own degree requirements. General-education or breadth requirements for engineers are typically much fewer than those for other undergraduates, reflecting a curriculum chock-full of technical courses. This has allowed engineering to provide the accredited degree primarily at the baccalaureate level – the only major profession to do so. But it also has led to a dearth of general-education engineering courses for non-engineering students, since there has been little incentive to create them. Academia’s promotion and reward systems, which focus inwardly on one’s own discipline and department, further serve to isolate engineering faculty and majors into their own world within universities.
Historically, concerns have been raised about whether engineering belongs within a liberal arts university. Those have largely vanished as Americans recognize the importance of technology to society. Engineering now must emerge from its shell.
Several approaches could help integrate engineering. They include removing structural barriers, having engineering undergraduates meet full general-education requirements (which may put the professional degree at the graduate level), creating multidisciplinary research centers and courses, and developing engineering courses and seminars specifically designed and accepted for general education throughout the university. Less comprehensive engineering degrees also could afford a basis for graduate work in other areas, promoting formal and informal projects that mix students from other majors with engineers. And engineering faculty should be fully involved in defining universitywide distribution requirements and the nature of modern liberal education.
Despite some progress, such shifts are not yet widespread. Unsurprisingly, liberal arts universities have made the most headway. At Harvard and Yale, for instance, the school of engineering and applied science falls within the undergraduate college, with full distribution requirements. Yale also offers three bachelor’s degrees – a professional degree that is ABET accredited by field, an accredited engineering science degree, and an unaccredited bachelor of arts – and launched a very successful undergraduate Center for Engineering Innovation and Design, where the majority of participants are not engineering majors. Harvard, Dartmouth, Smith, and Harvey Mudd all offer accredited liberal arts undergraduate engineering science degrees that prepare students for graduate work in a specific engineering discipline or other field. Princeton maintains a goal that 90 percent of all students take at least one course in engineering.
Steps of this sort are feasible, readily done, and inexpensive. Other universities should follow the leaders.
C. Judson King, director of the Center for Studies in Higher Education and professor emeritus of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, served as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs for the University of California system from 1995 to 2004. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.